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Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012

The Florentine Opera Gets Romantic

Valentine's Day show, Grammy nods continue company's ascent

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For many years, the Florentine Opera, one of Milwaukee's longest-running cultural institutions, presented three productions each season and then went dark the rest of the year. It could have been likened to a citadel of tradition whose drawbridges were usually raised. Since the arrival in 2005 of the Florentine's energetic general director, William Florescu, the company has kept the lights burning year round and the bridges lowered, making connections to a city that had known the company more by hearsay than personal encounter.

Symbolizing that change was the Florentine's move from a forbidding Downtown corporate headquarters to a street-level studio-office in Riverwest. “The move puts teeth into the idea of outreach and being part of the community,” Florescu says. At the same time that the Florentine Opera has worked hard to connect with greater numbers of Milwaukeeans, the company has also made inroads toward international recognition. The Florentine's first-ever record release, their performance of Robert Aldridge's Elmer Gantry, received glowing reviews in the United States and United Kingdom and no less than three 2012 Grammy nominations.

Florescu attended Elmer Gantry's 2007 world premiere in Nashville. “I felt so strongly about it that I didn't want to miss the opportunity to stage it and record it,” he says. “I walked up to the composer that night and said, 'I'll do it in Milwaukee.'”

Good fortune coalesced around the project. Aldridge enjoyed good relations with Naxos, one of the world's largest classical music distributors, which—along with the quality of the Florentine's 2010 performance and the sterling reviews—led to Grammy nominations for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, Best Engineered Album (Classical) and Producer of the Year (Classical). Winners will be announced Feb. 12 at the Grammy Awards.

Elmer Gantry
has also placed in the classical album top-100 chart for many months. Those familiar with the 1960 Burt Lancaster movie based on Sinclair Lewis' satire of evangelical fundamentalism will find the opera familiar yet different. Librettist Herschel Garfein drew from the book, not the film, and the music respects the fervor of American spirituals and hymns.

“You walk away from the opera not with an indictment of religion but an indictment of charlatanism of any sort,” Florescu says. “The character of Elmer is more fleshed out, more complex, than in the film. It's an opera that will have legs.”

Florescu sees it as a continuation of the American folk opera tradition established by Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and a break with the decades-long grip of academia over American art music. Like Verdi or Puccini, Aldridge is connecting opera with lyrical and musical themes familiar to the popular audience of his time and place.

It's part of the changing identity of the Florentine Opera, which had seldom performed a contemporary work before Florescu's tenure. Another new path was taken when Florescu initiated the Studio Artists, a program unusual for the scope of opportunities it provides the community as well as young artists. Under the program, the Florentine employs four early-career singers each year. Along with roles in the company's main-stage productions, the young artists give showcase and outreach performances throughout greater Milwaukee and present a major concert of their own.

This year's Studio Artists show will be a concert revue of favorite love songs, “Isn't It Romantic?”

“So many performing arts groups have taken the Christmas slot. We decided to take ownership of Valentine's Day,” says Richard Clark, the Florentine's communications and PR manager.

The “Isn't It Romantic?” repertoire, performed Feb. 10-12 in the intimacy of Vogel Hall, comes from Viennese operetta, Broadway musicals and Tin Pan Alley.

“There are songs to die for housed in awful shows,” Florescu explains. “This is an opportunity for audiences to hear those songs again and for our young artists to learn the material. You can hear an 'ahhhh' from the audience at these kind of shows and hear humming from the seats.”

The Studio Artists, Erica Schuller (soprano), Kristen DiNinno (mezzo soprano), Matthew Richardson (tenor) and Dan Richardson (bass-baritone), will sing (and occasionally waltz) together with the accompaniment of pianist Eileen Huston, whose interludes provide segues between songs. Florescu will offer short introductions to the pieces, giving the audience a bit of background.

After the matinee and prior to the evening performance on Saturday, Feb. 11, the Milwaukee Florentine Opera Club will host a romantic gourmet dinner in the Bradley Pavilion of the Marcus Center. As Clark adds, “We give you everything but the date.”

David Luhrssen is the author of the forthcoming biography
Rouben Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen. John Schneider teaches theater at Marquette University and leads his own orchestra in performances of romantic songs.

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